Foreign Press Center Briefing with Francisco Palmieri: U.S. Priorities in the Western Hemisphere



Friday, September 23, 2016, 10:00 a.m. EDT
New York Foreign Press Center, 799 United Nations Plaza, 10th Floor

MODERATOR: Good morning. Welcome to all of you. This morning, the New York Foreign Press Center is pleased to welcome back the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Francisco “Paco” Palmieri. Today he will discuss U.S. Government engagement and policy implementation in the Western Hemispheric region.

Please take this moment, if you haven’t already, to silence your cell phones. Please remember that this briefing is on the record. Our guest will speak to open it up, and then we’ll open for your questions. And with that, I will turn it over to you, sir.

MR PALMIERI: Thank you. Good morning. I’d like to extend my thanks to the Foreign Press Center for hosting today’s briefing on U.S. Policy Priorities in the Western Hemisphere. We want a hemisphere that is democratic with a strong middle class and secure, and U.S. engagement with regional partners in New York this week seeks to further these objectives. I’d like to highlight a few bilateral and multilateral meetings that took place.

On September 18th, Secretary Kerry and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende cohosted a ministerial-level meeting to secure commitments to support the Global Demining Initiative on Colombia. Clearing the landmines and unexploded ordnance that have killed or injured more than 11,000 Colombians over the past 25 years is critical to securing the lasting peace Colombia deserves. Along with 19 other nations and the European Union, we pledged $105 million to landmine survey and clearance, mine-risk education, and assistance for survivors of landmine incidents. Of this amount, the United States pledged $36 million.

QUESTION: Thirty-six?

MR PALMIERI: Thirty-six million dollars. On Wednesday, Secretary Kerry met with Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. They discussed collaborative efforts to support democracy in the region, increase regional economic integration, including through the upcoming APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Lima, address transnational organized crime, protect the environment, and combat climate change, and bring clear drinking water to underserved populations. We appreciate Peru’s leadership on these issues.

In addition, President Obama met with President Santos, and Vice President Biden met with Brazilian President Temer.

I’d like to talk a little bit about our regional priorities. The United States is deeply engaged in the Western Hemisphere as evidenced by the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, support for the Colombian peace process, initiatives such as our Central America assistance package, our existing trade and investment figures, which grow out of extremely robust business ties, and the numerous high-level trips and visits made to the region, and so much more.

To compete in today’s global economy, we must build the Americas into a shared, integrated platform for global success. I should point out that we have more trade agreements in the Western Hemisphere than with any other region of the world. We would enhance these regional trade relationships if the Trans-Pacific Partnership is enacted as Canada, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and the United States are among the 12 TPP nations which in total represent 40 percent of the world economy.

We are committed to engaging in regional and bilateral dialogues to advance social and economic inclusion priorities. President Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative to create study abroad opportunities for all students, including those who have been historically marginalized, is emblematic of our regional focus on an inclusive opportunity-based agenda.

I’ll give a brief rundown of U.S. engagement in the hemisphere before turning to your questions.

Here in North America, Mexico has shown how a country can grow when its companies successfully integrate into the regional and global economy. And as evidenced by the official visit by Prime Minister Trudeau earlier this year, the relationship between the United States and Canada continues to grow ever closer. The North American Leaders’ Summit in Ottawa in June underscored the value of North American cooperation on issues directly affecting our people at home.

In Central America, the implementation of the U.S. strategy for engagement is among our most urgent priorities as we work to address the underlying conditions driving migration. Later today, as part of a meeting hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank with the Northern Triangle private sector, Vice President Biden and Acting Assistant Secretary Mari Carmen Aponte are meeting with the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to discuss progress on this issue in Washington. We work with many countries in the hemisphere on migration and refugee issues and appreciate those that demonstrate leadership on human rights and environmental issues.

Energy security remains a priority both in Central American and the Caribbean. The Vice President’s U.S. Caribbean Central America Energy Summit in May underscored the critical importance of reducing energy prices and increasing economic competiveness. In that vein, we also know how important the role civil society plays in helping us improve institutions and implement the region’s development strategies. We continue to promote a greater role for civil society in regional dialogues and high-level summit, and note how the Northern Triangle countries of Central America have integrated civil society into the planning process for the Alliance for Progress.

In Haiti, although the United States suspended its electoral financial assistance, the U.S. Government continues to support the elections as the only way in which Haiti can return to constitutional rule and address the serious challenges it is facing. The United States has long supported democracy, democratic institutions, and respect for human rights in Haiti. We have taken a number of steps to demonstrate our unwavering and continuing support for the electoral process, such as our contribution to an international observer mission from the Organization of American States at the October 9th elections.

Since re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba on July 20, 2015, we have met our counterparts in the Cuban Government, some for the first time, and engaged on a range of economic, cultural, and social issues. We have forged bilateral cooperation in areas that we believe will improve the lives of the citizens of both countries. We remain convinced that our shift from a policy of isolation to engagement is working and is the best course for supporting the aspirations of the Cuban people and the emergence of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Cuba. 

Traveling farther south, Colombia is experiencing historic change. The United States welcomes the signing of the final accord, which should serve as the foundation for the just and lasting peace that the Colombian people deserve. Secretary Kerry will lead the U.S. delegation to the signing of the accord next Monday, September 26th. We look forward to continuing our partnership with Colombia through the President’s Peace Colombia strategy. 

In Venezuela, we are concerned with deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and the failure of the government to address the basic humanitarian needs of the Venezuelan people. A remedy can only come about through dialogue among Venezuelans from across the entire political spectrum and based on respect for human rights and democratic institutions and fair and open electoral processes.

The United States is troubled by Wednesday’s announcement by the Venezuelan National Electoral Council that its recall referendum process might not be completed until 2017. This decision deprives Venezuelan citizens with the opportunity to shape the course of their country. We call on the Venezuelan executive branch to engage in a serious dialogue with both the opposition and Venezuelans from all parts of the political spectrum. Now is the time to listen to all Venezuelan voices and to work together to find solutions to the challenges and problems facing Venezuela.

Turning to the Southern Cone, we worked closely with Brazil on the successful Olympic and Paralympic Games and continue to collaborate on efforts to counter Zika. We have also renewed our partnership and have many shared interests with Argentina and are committed to deepening that economic, commercial, and political partnership.

I’ll also note that this morning President Bachelet of Chile is in Washington, D.C. and will receive a tranche of records related to the Letelier assassination. This concludes a multiyear interagency effort to identify and declassify these documents in response to a request from the Government of Chile. 

As you can see, we are deeply engaged in the region and our meetings this week with regional partners have only furthered our shared objectives. I look forward to your questions. Thank you.

QUESTION: If I may ask you – I don’t know if you want to do this is in English or Spanish —

MR PALMIERI: We’re going to do this part in English. I might be able to do a question afterwards in Spanish.


MODERATOR: And can you identify yourself and your —

QUESTION: Yeah. Sure. I’m Lucia Leal with EFE. It’s a Spanish newswire. May I ask you about what you just said about the documents that President Bachelet is going to receive? The Chilean Government wanted to receive a report by the CIA, which supposedly contained evidence that Pinochet had ordered personally the murder of Letelier. Is that report included in those documents?

MR PALMIERI: I have not seen the full package of the documents. We can get you an answer. But on any specific requests for documents from that agency, I’d direct the question to the agency itself.

QUESTION: Okay. And —

MR PALMIERI: I should add that separately Assistant Secretary Mari Carmen Aponte met with the Spanish State Minister for International Cooperation, Jesus de Gracia.


MR PALMIERI: Or Jesus Gracia. Other questions?

QUESTION: There’s been a lot of talk about refugees, immigration this week. And on Monday, several groups met at the Center of Migration Studies. And one of the criticisms to the U.S. was the treatment of – after Central American immigrants are detained, how – the treatment that they receive from U.S. authorities and the fact that they are put – one of the criticism is that they are put in this very cold room. This has been a criticism over the last two years or so. It’s Spanish it’s called la hielera. And this is something that they are pushing to have changed. What is the U.S. response on that? And why – what’s the purpose of that, to put them in such a room with such low temperatures? What’s that —

MR PALMIERI: Well, first, I would have to direct specific questions about the conditions of detention to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. As a general statement, I know that we treat all detainees extremely well and take into account their specific needs and address any conditions that they might be suffering under.

Separately though, I think what is really important is the $750 million investment President Obama has sought for Central America, so that we can help provide assistance in the home communities from which and where these individuals are leaving. We’re trying to improve the security situation in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. We’re working on integrated community service and community policing programs to reduce the violence from which many of these people are fleeing. But more than that, we’re also working to provide greater economic prosperity and economic growth and job creation in these communities so that people don’t have to make this dangerous journey from Central America across Mexico to arrive at a border where they, along the route, are often exploited by alien smuggling networks.

QUESTION: Aldo Gamboa, Agence France-Presse. (In Spanish.) Oh, sorry. I was speaking Spanish.

MR PALMIERI: That’s all right. (In Spanish.)

QUESTION: I would like to know if there’s any plan for bilateral meetings already for —

MR PALMIERI: As I mentioned in my remarks, Secretary Kerry will lead the U.S. delegation to Colombia for the signing ceremony on Monday. The United States welcomes the peace accord. We’re hopeful it will lead to the justing and lasting peace that the Colombian people desire. As President Obama has said, the time for peace has come in Colombia. We’ll continue to engage there. But for particulars about the Secretary’s schedule, we – we’re just not able to comment on that at this time here.

QUESTION: Alejandro Rincon with NTN 24. Follow-up on the Venezuela situation. I’m wondering if there is any other additional source of concern for the U.S. Government besides the fact that there seems to be a point now where the entire referendum process seems to be stalling. And you have already mentioned that the U.S. is troubled about the fact that this process could get to a point where they are completely blocked, but is there any other additional sources of concern of the U.S. in terms of what’s happening right now in Venezuela? Maybe situation will deteriorate at some point that conflict is there, or will get to some point that it’s – completely deteriorates the situation and makes it even worse than it’s already now.

MR PALMIERI: I think it’s well documented that there are severe food shortages and medicine shortages throughout the country. People in Venezuela are suffering, and it is the role of democratic elected governments to address the needs of their people. One of the ways to do that is in a true dialogue that involves all of the elements of the country, and the United States has supported that dialogue. But this decision on Wednesday by the national electoral council to move forward with the next phase of the recall referendum process, but which limits the number of polling stations to collect the necessary signatures, which has distributed those polling stations in a very partisan manner around the country, and which is imposing a state-by-state requirement for the collection of those signatures, does not seem to be the kind of inclusive process that will allow Venezuelan people to express their democratic will in a fair and unbiased manner. So yes, we are concerned about this announcement.

In addition, the political opposition, the MUD, has made it clear that they will continue to move forward with peaceful, large-scale protests to demonstrate the needs and the desires of the Venezuelan people for meaningful action that addresses these concerns. We’re very heartened that the MUD is committed to peaceful protest, and that is how democratic societies should address the kinds of shortcomings we are all seeing in the country.

The best way, though, is for the government to move quickly and for a timely and fair recall vote this year.

QUESTION: And can I follow up on that?

MR PALMIERI: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Diego – no, I’ll follow up.


QUESTION: Diego Senior, W Radio, Caracol Colombia. What actions can you take other than expressing the concern respected in order to help the Venezuelan people reach their goals, which is just the opportunity to actually carry a vote this year?

MR PALMIERI: Did you have another follow-up, and I could do it together?

QUESTION: Yeah, no, I just wanted to ask you, because I saw Kirby’s statement yesterday, but there was a representative from the party, Mr. Maduro’s party, that said that he thinks it’s impossible that the referendum could take place even in 2017. So I was wondering if there is any reaction to that.

MR PALMIERI: Yeah. I heard about the headlines in Caracas that attribute that statement to a political member of the president’s party. Look, the United States position is very clear: There should be a timely and fair recall referendum process that is carried out this year. That is the best way for Venezuelans themselves to resolve and to address the socioeconomic conditions in the country.

What can the United States do? We respect Venezuelan sovereignty and acknowledge that this is a process that the Venezuelan people have to carry out. But as we have said today, as we have said previously, democratic institutions and democratic processes are the best way to address these concerns, and they ought to be carried out in a fair, nonpartisan way that gives all sides the ability to have their voices heard and their will expressed. We will continue to insist that the democratic, constitutional processes in Venezuela be respected and adhered to. But as an outside country, we have to respect the sovereignty of Venezuela to carry out these matters.

QUESTION: Is Tom Shannon still playing a part in the conversations between the two countries? Maybe he could also be a good – a guy that can give good advice to the president over there.

MR PALMIERI: Well, I think there are a lot of people who acknowledge that Under Secretary Shannon often is able to give wise and good counsel to any number of different world leaders. He has a special relationship from having served in Venezuela previously. He remains very engaged on the issue of Venezuela, as does Assistant Secretary Aponte. I think we are open and willing to continue those conversations with all levels of the Venezuelan Government to impress and encourage them to carry out and use the democratic institutions they have at their disposal to bring about a national reconciliation that addresses the real economic problems inside the country. So yes, we will continue to offer our help and assistance where and when we can to the government and people of Venezuela.

QUESTION: Motokura, Kyodo News, Japanese news wire. How do you think about – how do you see the level of the social tensions inside of Venezuela compared with 2002, 2003, just before the coup attempt against Mr. Chavez?

MR PALMIERI: I think it’s a very different environment from 2002, 2003. It’s even a very different environment from 2014, when we last saw street protests. The political opposition has won a overwhelming victory November – last December in democratic elections. The government continues to thwart the work of the national assembly through its control of the other democratic institutions in Venezuela rather than seeing the national assembly as a partner in working toward solutions that can benefit all Venezuelans. And the pursuit of the recall referendum by the political opposition is an indication that Venezuelans across the entire political spectrum – in every community, in every part of the country – want a chance to have their voices heard about the direction the country is headed in and they’re concerned about that direction. And we will continue to support in our statements and in our work – excuse me – the push for a timely and fair recall vote in this calendar year.

QUESTION: Can I ask about Nicaragua?


QUESTION: Yes. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Okay. So the House of Representatives passed a package of – well, a bill that would impose sanctions on Nicaragua. It would, I think – sorry, I had this planned in Spanish – it would block loans to that country until it celebrates free and fair elections. Is this something that the Administration is going to support?

MR PALMIERI: So the Administration is deeply concerned about democratic practice inside of Nicaragua. The current government there has also taken control of all of the democratic institutions, and its decisions this year to deny international observation of their November elections, to strip the leadership of the political opposition parties from their positions, and to continue to limit freedom of the press in the country are anti-democratic. It calls into question the legitimacy and credibility of the elections that will take place in November.

QUESTION: And would the Administration support this bill, the sanctions?

MR PALMIERI: We’ll have to look more deeply at the specific elements of the legislation, which at this moment has only passed the House of Representatives, before we take a formal public position on it.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. willing to reconsider or is – I understand that several Central American presidents, including the Costa Rican president, I think in November sent a letter to Obama asking to look into the policy towards Cubans – the pies secos/pies mojados policy. I know this is a year of elections, but is the U.S. willing to look into it or reconsider whether its treatment towards Cuban immigrants in relation to other immigrants who don’t have those kind of benefits?

MR PALMIERI: The U.S. policy of wet foot/dry foot policy with respect to Cuban migrants arriving in the United States remains our policy and will stay in place. We are, through our programs in Central America, looking at ways that we can help address the root causes and underlying conditions that are propelling other people from other nationalities to try to immigrate to the United States by improving the conditions on the ground in Central America both economically and from a security point of view. I think that is a response that creates the possibility of a longer-term solution to irregular migration from Central America, and we’ll continue to work on that.

I think the normalization of relations with Cuba will allow more people-to-people exchanges and will improve U.S. relationships inside Cuba, and the ability of Cubans inside Cuba to pursue entrepreneurial activities, to grow the small private sector there, and improve their own economic prospects on the island as well.

QUESTION: President Obama be able to close Guantanamo?

MR PALMIERI: The President is working very hard to reach that goal, but I would have to defer that question to the special envoy on Guantanamo. I know they’ve made significant progress in recent months and that continues to be the goal.

QUESTION: If I can follow up on the Cuba questions —


QUESTION: — I just wanted to get, if possible, a more – if you could elaborate on why the U.S. is still supporting this policy. I know it’s been a longstanding policy and it has ties to Congress, but all these countries are kind of – I think it’s generating tensions with some countries in the hemisphere when what the U.S. wants is that its policy towards Cuba improves the relation with other countries in the hemisphere.

MR PALMIERI: So there’s no change contemplated on the wet foot, dry foot policy. It remains our policy with respect to Cuban migrants. I think with respect to how other countries feel about it and the impact that policy has on other irregular or undocumented migration towards the United States, I think we deal with each of these situations in a distinct and different way. I mentioned what we’re doing in Central America to try to improve conditions in the region. There was an announcement yesterday that, with respect to Haitian migrants, that we are also cognizant that there has been a slight increase in Haitian migration and we’re addressing that as well. The Department of Homeland Security will have more information on that issue.

But the reality is we work with all of our partners in the region to address this issue, and ultimately, the problem of irregular undocumented migration is one that requires a regional approach and one that requires each and every one of the countries to enforce their own immigration laws and their own borders.

QUESTION: Following up a little bit on the migration issue, what would you consider as the key fact for this strategy to actually work? Because after all, it’s important that there is compromise from both sides, which is pretty much evident, but what would you consider as the key part that the partners of the U.S. should actually implement to actually have this policy work? Are they really committed or what extra additional action is required from them to actually try a different or have any – the different impact on this issue?

MR PALMIERI: So Franklin Roosevelt once said the best social program ever invented was a job, and I think that’s still true. People need work, they need jobs, and the Central American Northern Triangle leaders created the Alliance for Progress to both invest in their human resources and to activate their productive sectors, their private sectors. Today, in Washington, Vice President Biden and the three presidents of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are meeting with President Moreno and their private sectors to work on exactly that – how can private sectors activate their own investments in the region and create the jobs that keep people in their home communities.

I think it’s also important for people to understand, while we’re putting up $750 million, the three countries of the region are putting up almost $2 billion of their own money directed at exactly these kind of investments to improve economic growth and economic opportunity within their own countries. That’s a critical component of really getting at addressing the long-term issue. It’s really clear. A key component of our policy is an integrated Central America – not just the three countries, but the entire region. If Central America becomes a unified market of 47 million consumers, rather than individual country markets, it becomes a much more attractive destination for foreign investment.

And so ultimately, how do you solve the conditions? It’s create economic opportunity, create jobs so people can work and live in the home communities that they love. Finally, where we can also make an impact, is working on the security programs, to address the runaway violence. Honduras has made some important progress in reducing the homicide rate in its country from the 90s to the low 60s, 50s this year. But just as that started to improve, El Salvador’s homicide rate, last year, became the highest in the world, going to over 100 per 100,000. That’s real violence and those conditions have to be addressed as well.

But I think jobs are a critical way of really getting at the long-term solution and it’s going to require the United States to continue our investments over a period of years, and to keep and sustain our presence.

Thank you guys.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: If there are no additional questions, that concludes today’s briefing. The transcript will be made available shortly, and I want to thank all of you for being here, and especially to our PDAS Paco Palmieri for being with us today. Thank you very much.